Day 11: Madrid

We woke up when we darn well pleased this morning, showered and went for breakfast of toast, coffee, and juice.  After fueling up, we set off to try to discover more Toledo charm.  Our first stop was to find the Sinagoga del Transito (aka the Museo Sefardi), and our quest to find it was only hampered by the Spanish affinity to post just a few signs vaguely pointing the way.  Like a treasure hunt!  Only by now, we were getting a little wary of all the treasure hunts Spain had sent us on.

No matter, we decoded the clues and found the Sinagoga, which happened to be free on Sundays.  Free!  Awww…  they shouldn’t have.  We happily accepted our gratis tickets and went inside.  The museum included many displays of relics from Spain’s previous Jewish population (most of whom were either executed, forced to convert to Christianity, or fled during the Christian Reconqueista period), including clothing, religious artifacts, and day-to-day life necessities.  There were also parts of the wall original to the synagogue that included intricate stucco reliefs in a Moorish design, but instead of Arabic the writing is Hebrew.

After departing the synagogue we whizzed by El Greco’s House (closed for renovation), then decided it was time to move on to bigger and better things:  Madrid.  We packed up our gear, checked out of the Santa Isabel, and took a taxi (about €8) to the train station in the hopes of catching the 12:30 train departure.  Success!

The trip into Madrid was fast and painless (took only 30 minutes) and we were able to take the Metro easily to our hotel, the Hotel Preciados.  This was a splurge for us (at €111/night), but we got a great rate, it was a wonderful location, and it was fancy – suitable for someone who is about to celebrate a birthday.  Ahem, Jim.

We just can’t resist a good equestrian statue

After surveying the room with glee for a few moments, playing with the metal shutters that moved up and down with the press of a button, making snow angel motions on the gloriously large bed, squealing over the fact we had more than one English channel on TV, taking a free drink from the mini-bar, and inspecting all of the bathroom toiletries, we pulled ourselves together enough to go out and find out what Madrid has to offer.  We headed down the pedestrian only zone (past about 6 El Corte Ingles department stores) to the Puerta del Sol.  The Puerta del Sol is a main hub in Madrid, with the sea of humanity to prove it.

As we were a little hungry, the important-looking buildings and statues played second fiddle to the growing roar in our stomachs, and we briefly considered a stop at McDonalds before happening upon a little gem called VIPS.  VIPS is a cross between Chilis and Bennigans, and was perfect.  We ordered croquettes (just couldn’t break ourselves of the ham habit), and a couple of chicken sandwiches with fries.  It hit the spot, and we didn’t care how non-Spanish it was (although the place was teeming with locals out

There it is – the EXACT CENTER of Spain!

with their families).

Now that we had full bellies, we could focus on the task at hand, and that was introducing ourselves to Madrid.  We started by taking the Rick Steves’ walk that starts you out in the Puerta del Sol.  Here we saw (and photographed) a placard on the ground that marks the direct center of Spain.  I’m not sure why it was so exciting to us, but sometimes it’s the little things.  Next, we sussed out a bakery, the La Mallorquina, which was an organized madhouse of baked goods.  I felt at home.  Then we walked toward the Plaza Mayor, a large square (what are the odds?), and on towards the Royal Palace (which was closed by this point).

Near the Royal Palace was the Café de Oriente, a popular spot with plenty of heated outdoor seating.  And some of the best hot chocolate in Spain.  Although we were a little full still from our gourmet lunch at VIPS, we powered down a cuppa this magically thick chocolate goo and polished off the accompanying cookie.

Afterward, it was getting to be that bewitching hour when the Prado Museum opens its doors for free – FREE, PEOPLE! –  so we headed off in that direction.  The line was around the block (we weren’t the only ones making good use of a free, world-renowned museum), but it moved quickly and with only a moderate amount of Spanish line jumpers.

Random Spain Note:  the Spanish may be well adept at many, many things (olive oil, flamenco, and hot salty almonds, to name a few) but queuing is not one of their strong suits.  Like directional signage, lines appear to be more of a suggestion to the Spanish, not a hard and fast rule.  Therefore, when confronted with a queue many Spaniards will either a) pick a spot in the line (and never at the end, mind you) and go from there, or b) bum rush the front.  Thusly, from above you will always be able to distinguish a Spanish line because it will be shaped like a lollipop – a round group of people pushing at the front followed by a long stick of law-abiding non-Spanish people waiting their turn.  But in this case, the stick is the sucker.

Once inside, we checked our bag (required) and tried to make sense of the artistic madness.  Ok, so the museum was free and we shouldn’t complain, but it is one of the least-organized museums in the world.  It HAS to be.  There was no rhyme or reason for the placement of paintings and there was no “flow.”  Little rooms with priceless works of art were hidden here and there, the museum map was a bit difficult to follow, and not all of the salons were marked.  This truly was a Spanish treasure hunt.  We zigged and zagged back and forth, trying to hit all the highlights, and after about an hour or so we decided we’d gotten our money’s worth of art.

We went back to the room for a little R&R before deciding to head out on a beer/tapas crawl.  This was easier conceptualized in our heads than executed.  Our first stop came relatively easy, a bar called Taberna Los Angeles – seemed popular with the locals, like a spot they hung out in for a few hours before going to dinner at 23:00.  Here we had a beer and some peanuts, then decided to move on.  This is when things got tricky.  We walked and walked and walked, and ended up at Plaza Mayor (where there were three men wearing masks crouched under a table so all you could see was their heads.  Oooh, scary), then walked the perimeter of Plaza Mayor but could not find a suitable bar – or, at least, one that wasn’t lit up brighter than a Christmas tree.  Ambience has yet to be introduced in Madrid (but we later realized it must be because most places use eco-friendly CFL lightbulbs and are unable to dim them.  Go green).  We walked the streets surrounding Plaza Mayor, found an Irish bar full of large, drunken Irish men, passed a spot on the street that seemed popular with drunk locals to pee on, then, after about an hour, found a bar that only met part of our criteria (they had beer) but we were so exhausted by the search that we lowered our standards and went in.  Our surly waiter served us a beer, and we felt so awkward in this place (it also happened to have grotesque pictures of bullfights on the walls) that we slammed our beers and high-tailed it, intending to go home.

Virtually across the street from the horrible bar there was a cuter place, called Carne y Tapas (think it is a chain).  Jim spotted it and said, “c’mon, let’s go for one more.”  Aaaah, the “Just One More” ploy.  I was game, so we sauntered in and plopped ourselves down at the bar.  Sangria was on tap so we decided it was time to sample our first one.  Turns out I should have stuck to beer, as sangria can be a powerful libation.

We were sipping on our sangrias, observing the inner workings of this bar, and a couple from France came in and sat down next to us.  We noticed they were having a bit of trouble with the Spanish language, so Jim offered to help them.  Well, this just initiated a conversation that lasted quite a while (and another sangria).  Jim conversed in his French, the husband in his little English, and the wife and myself giggled incessantly while trying to speak French/English.  The more sangria, the better my French, for sure.  We discussed Paris (they were from Versailles), and at one point I told them the best part of Paris was the chocolate crepe stand at the base of the Eifel Tower.  The man was a bit incredulous that we came all the way to Paris and found the crepes at an outdoor food cart to be the best part, but I didn’t have the heart to tell him we weren’t all that crazy about Paris.  So we emphasized the parts we did like.

A little after 23:00 the bar abruptly turned on all the lights and told us to leave.  What, no last call?  After begging for one more drink (and mercifully being told no), we paid the €7 bar tab (a value!), bid adieu to our French buddies and stumbled outside.  Well, I did more stumbling than Jim, that sangria was very, very powerful.  Thankfully, Jim pulled his wits about him long enough to figure out where we were and get us home in one piece, where immediately we went to bed and passed out.

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